One public servant skipped work. A butcher shut up her store for the day. A noodle seller watched on his phone.
They all wanted to hear what Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi had to say about an issue that has brought their country into the eye of an unprecedented storm of criticism: Violence in the country’s Rakhine State that has led to an exodus of more than 400,000 Rohingya Muslims into Bangladesh.
While Suu Kyi’s speech failed to deflect the growing international condemnation of Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya, the mood in Yangon, the country’s largest city, was upbeat.
“We, the majority of the people, stand with her and we strongly believe that she can solve this problem,” said Phyu Wint Yee, 41, owner of a travel agency, who watched the speech at park in downtown Yangon, where a big screen was specially erected.
It mattered little that Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s State Counselor, spoke in English, which meant many didn’t understand her public address.
“I’m proud that she’s speaking on behalf of us to the world,” said Bran San, a trishaw driver, who took a break to watch the speech on television.
Others showed their support by changing their social media profiles to a picture of Suu Kyi, who was a political prisoner for years before coming to power.
Fifty-seven-year-old public servant Khin Maung Maung, like many of the dozen or so people CNN spoke to, blamed the crisis on the international media, which he said was “publishing the wrong information” about Rakhine State.
They say the international media focuses on the minority groups like the Rohingya, while ignoring the plight of Rakhine Buddhists, who are members of the majority religion in Myanmar.
Newspapers carry the government’s account of the crisis, casting it in terms of the military responding to attacks by terrorists. There are no references to the accusations of ethnic cleansing or alleged massacres.
Like Suu Kyi herself, few people in Yangon use the term Rohingya, most people refer to the minority as “Bengalis” – a slur term that is often used as shorthand for illegal immigrants – and there appears to be little sympathy for the Muslim minority in a country where there has been an upsurge in Buddhist nationalism.
Prejudice against the Rohingya, who are not seen as citizens of Myanmar, is long held and people aren’t shy to share their views.
“They are terrorists to the native population,” said one noodle seller in Yangon’s Lanmadaw district.
Tin Win, who works for the country’s Inland Water Transport agency, was until recently based in Sittwe, the state capital of Rakhine, where he lived for more than two years.
He painted a picture of a Buddhist population under threat from Muslims. “They are expanding,” he said. “They produce so many kids, so many children.”
He also found no fault with the camps or ghettos some 120,000 Rohingya are forced to live in by the state, but said he’d never visited them, as he was told “they were too dangerous for an outsider.”
“They can leave under escort. It’s not a problem. They come to the public hospital. They can come to shop at the market. “
Some 90% of Myanmar’s population is Buddhist but the notion that Islam threatens Buddhism is prevalent, according to a new report from the International Crisis Group, which says the idea often appears in mass publications and popular religious materials.
“The feeling that Islam is especially pernicious … frustrates Buddhists who believe that their faith has suffered for its tolerance of other religions,” the report says.
The religious strife, which has been whipped up by well-known firebrand monks like Ashin Wirathu, isn’t only felt in Rakhine state.
Myanmar is home to other Muslim communities and they have had their mosques attacked and schools closed down, according to the ICG report, which warns of potential communal violence across the country.
The animosity towards Rohingya isn’t shared by everyone.
“Both sides are suffering and poor so I want a stable situation. I hope she will do the best for both sides,” said Liam Ngaio Nuam, 25, a nursing student, who is Christian.
Others said they wished for peace.
The bloodshed unfolding in northern Rakhine State and the humanitarian crisis it has unleashed across the border in Bangladesh feels far away in bustling Yangon, which is enjoying the economic fruits of Myanmar’s transition from a military dictatorship to a young democracy led by Suu Kyi.
Ironically, as Suu Kyi’s status as a champion of human rights in the West is sullied by her handling of the crisis, the criticism being leveled at her appears to be enhancing her status as a moral hero at home.
“She is walking a tightrope because of all this wrong or fake information,” said Nay Win Oo, a tour guide.
In the past, Suu Kyi has referred to a “huge iceberg of misinformation” about the Rohingya crisis that was contributing to the barrage of international complaints.
Suu Kyi’s attempts to shape the message within Myanmar seems to have worked.
However, even as State Counselor, she doesn’t have full control of the levers of power.
The country’s Constitution gives ultimate authority to the military, led by Commander-in-Chief General Min Aung Hlaing.
With little sympathy for the Rohingya among her supporters, there’s little incentive for Suu Kyi to condemn the generals’ actions against the Rohingya in the way the international community wants.